Saturday, October 25, 2008
This, naturally, got me thinking about sitting down and formalizing a 2e houserules/hack project that's been sort of dancing around in my head for a while now. My few notes on this are on my desktop hard drive back home, but this is what, I believe, I've got so far:
- Use Castles & Crusades as the base system, then add 2e sub-systems to my heart's content.
- For example, classes are pared way down. Humans can choose from the 3e core of Adept, Aristocrat, Commoner, Expert, and Warrior. I plan to adapt the simplified NPC classes from Mongoose's Lone Wolf RPG to this purpose, when possible. Demi-human races become classes.
- These broad classes are then, optionally, customized by choosing kits. I haven't narrowed the list down yet, but races will get to choose from a customized list (with Elves mostly choosing from Druid kits, Dwarves from Fighter kits, and Halflings from Thief kits) and each human class will have access to a customized list as well.
- I intend to use many of the alternate magic systems from Spells & Magic for individual classes and/or kits. Still haven't figured out how exactly I'm going to go about doing that, but I have some notes back home.
- I'll use the Proficiency system from 2e, but I might use the 4e approach to resolving Proficiency checks: possessing a Proficiency gives you a "skilled" bonus to your roll.
My Uresia hack has been on hold for the last couple months, but I've been thinking about getting back into it. Inspired by this post by Alexis, I've begun seriously considering using a card system for the whole game. I mean, the setting is inspired partly by CRPGs, after all, and cards would be an awesome way to evoke the feeling of a typical CRPG "character sheet," complete with item slots and "tabs." I'm envisioning one's character sheet taking the form of a stack of cards. One card would be the character's basic info (attributes, AC, hit points, saves bonuses, etc.), other cards would consist of magic items, spells memorized, henchmen, etc. Maybe even a different card for each class and each level, listing current bonuses, abilities, and attack matrices. This very well might turn into quite a little project....
Thursday, October 23, 2008
So Cyber-Knight hops through, grabs the Item, which happens to be a crystal orb about the size of a soccer ball, and is immediately waylaid by the sorcerer's gargoyle guards. The rift is shutting, so C-K throws the orb through, the shaman catches it, and the rift closes for good. We left off with the C-K having dispatched the few gargoyle guards in that room and pondering how he was going to sneak out of the tower unnoticed.
SO. The reason I'm posting about this is that I want to have that orb show up as a sort of recurring McGuffin over the course of the campaign--and I'd like to come up with a suitably gonzo idea for what exactly the orb is.
I'm going to follow Doc Rotwang!'s advice and do some brainstorming, and my first step in that direction is putting this out in the Interwebs to see if any of my esteemed, erudite readers would like to offer up any esteemed, erudite suggestions of their own. If I end up using your idea, you win my thanks and a place in my collective gaming memories.
To recap, it's a crystal orb about the size of a soccer ball. I described it, in the few seconds the PC was holding it, as "appearing to contain a whole miniature planet," but that could easily be hand-waved away as merely an illusion or trick of the light, or as perhaps one facet of the orb. Furthermore, note that the PC did hold it, and tossed it into the hands of the shaman, so clearly whatever its powers or other properties may be, they are not activated by touch. And remember, this is a gonzo science-fantasy-anything-goes-magic-meets-technology setting, so don't feel constrained by such petty concerns as reality or continuity.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
An Antarctic mountain range that rivals the Alps in elevation will be probed this month by an expedition of scientists using airborne radar and other Information Age tools to virtually "peel away" more than 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) of ice covering the peaks.
One of the mysteries of the mountain range is that current evidence suggests that it "shouldn't be there" at all.
Perhaps we'll soon be seeing our first satellite images of cyclopean cities and shoggoths?
Saturday, October 18, 2008
So I was up way too late last night reading over various threads that have sprung up in the wake of the release of Supplement V: Carcosa (JimLOTFP links to a couple of them over in his rant/review, if you care to wade in). And, having read those threads, I woke up this morning with the perfect idea for a guaranteed money-maker--Supplement VI: Slaughter Town, in which the PCs exist in a safe, sexless world filled with childless monsters that line up to be slaughtered so that the players may tap into their inherent heroic personnas and become better people in the process.
For those of you who don't know, Carcosa is a self-published, intentionally old school RPG supplement, intended primarily for use with the original 1974 rules of D&D (the title, which some found unnecessarily presumptuous, refers to the other four supplements that were published for OD&D, but the contents of the book utilize only the original rules). It details a pulpish, Moorcockian-Lovecratian world of sinister magic, weird technology, soporific lotuses, and ambiguous morality. As I wrote yesterday, I recently received my copy in the mail and am now enthusiastically looking forward to using it in a game ASAP.
So imagine my surprise at the firestorm of controversy that has erupted over a certain aspect of the book. That aspect would be the magic system. Standard D&D-style magic does not exist in the Carcosa setting. Rather, sorcerers trade their health, vitality, and even their souls in exchange for summoning and controlling eldritch cosmic horrors. All of these rituals (save banishments, see below) involve some form of human sacrifice. Ages range from infants to the elderly. Some of the rituals also call for the rape or torture of the victim before their sacrifice. Some of those rituals intersect with the requirement that the victim be a child or young adolescent. And this is where, in the opinion of some, Carcosa crosses the line.
I find this fascinating, if not all that surprising. As George Carlin used to point out, we live in a society that practically fetishizes childhood. Add in the double standard when it comes to sex and violence--it's all well and good to obsessively detail five different types of swords and eight different types of pole arms in the equipment lists, all the better for gutting hundreds of potential foes, but describe a ritual that is meant to be evil, corrupt, and debased and you've suddenly "gone too far"--and you've got yourself a powderkeg. I mean, some people--folks I quite respect, and continue to do so I might add--actually said they never address the idea of orc children in their games because they find the idea too morally discomforting. More power to ya, friend, but I have to say I. Just. Don't. Get it. Why is the slaughter of sentient creatures not morally discomforting, then? Just sayin'.
At any rate, it should be pointed out that there is an implicit approach to campaigning in Carcosa that was made explicit in the threads I read last night. Remember the part about banishment rituals not requiring a sacrifice? Gosh, what could that imply? Perhaps, I don't know, that you could play a "good guy" sorcerer out to stop these monstrous rituals from occurring (especially since the new Sorcerer class is equally adept as a combatant, thus implying that you don't actually need to know any rituals at all) and banishing the cosmic entities that have been unleashed by power-mad wizards? As Geoffrey McKinney, the author of the supplement, pointed out, he has also used the rituals to explore an "ends justify the means" theme, in which certain non-banishment rituals have been presented to good guy sorcerers, who must then decide if the, say, sacrifice of six people is worth the trade-off of the thousands of lives that will be spared if the ritual is cast. That's the stuff great campaigns are made of--although one detractor on one of the threads accused Geoffrey of being a "mindfucker" GM who obviously enjoyed torturing his players. All I have to say to that is that the accuser must run some pretty boring games if they consider moral quandaries to be equivalent to mind-fucking.
I think one of the essential disconnects--especially on the thread on the RPGsite, which was by far much more hyperbolic than the Dragonsfoot site--is that people are forgetting this was intentionally published as an old school supplement. You remember old school D&D, right? Supplement III, with the naked sacrificial victim on the cover? More to the point, the D&D that was a toolkit and not a set of commandments handed down from on high? The way some people were acting (people who, BTW, hadn't actually, you know, seen the book), you'd think that Carcosa forced you to play child-sacrificing wizards, or that every ritual in the book involved child rape or something. Not even close. The hideous rituals are presented to use or ignore as you choose. It's one very small part of the overall book. Geoffrey does not focus on it; he presents it and moves on.
As for myself, I would not be interested in playing a "bad guy" sorcerer, nor would, I think, most people who pick up Carcosa. Those who would be interested in such a thing have probably already been featuring such elements in their games. I know that back in high school I sat in on one or two rather harrowing Sabbat-centered Vampire games that crossed the line into distinctly unpleasant territory.
The cult of stat normalization and systemization has grown out of control in gaming nowadays, and I fully expect that in 10 years' time we'll look back on this period of RPG evolution and scratch our heads in wonderment at the 350-page tomes filled with writing that has all the excitement factor of a technical manual (for that's what many RPG books are these days, simply manuals and not works of daring and infectious creativity). As an example, one of the most savage critics of Carcosa over on the RPGsite (a bloke who's sub-handle was, ironically, Harbinger of Chaos--I guess chaos has its limits, huh?) came up with a brilliant retort to the proposition laid out above, in which you would play a Lawful sorcerer who had to grapple with the gradual loss of his humanity as he continually compromised himself in the name of the greater good. Our sage critic came back with, "What mechanic would you use to track the humanity loss?" ::facepalm::
So when we have such a disconnect, it's hard to argue on a level playing field. Understandable. It's just a shame to see people stooping to the usual hysteria of a moral panic. The ultimate moral panic, the D&D witch-hunts of the 1980s, were, not surprisingly, invoked in these threads. Give me a break. No one cares about D&D any more--we've moved on, we've developed new moral panics. Another poster worried about what he'd have to do if he "had to explain" to his non-gaming friends and relatives if word of Carcosa "ever got out." Guess what? It won't. Get over it, drop your persecution complex, and move on.
One last point I want to make before washing my hands of all this. Quite a few detractors were accusing Geoffrey of going too far, of not truly honoring the pulp antecedents he claimed to be drawing inspiration from. "Lovecraft and Howard often spoke of 'unnameable horrors' for a reason," went the argument. "We don't have to have the 'unspeakable' rituals graphically detailed in order to feel horrified." Oh really? People seem pretty dang horrified to me. And I would seriously doubt that, if Howard or Lieber were alive and writing today, they would hold back in the graphic description department. They pushed the envelope as it was. (Lovecraft, I think, would still be circumspect, both because it was his shtick and the guy was pretty much asexual anyway.) The reason they didn't go into more detail was thanks to folks like Anthony Comstock, the sexual neuter who passed a series of laws basically trying to outlaw any references to sex anywhere, any time. We live in a time when, thank goodness, we're allowed to actually write about what we want and not fear arrest or prosecution.
There were a couple detractors who were openly advocating reporting Geoffrey to the FBI for trafficking child pornography. These reactionary morons would happily return to a time of government censorship, in which the horrors of the world were swept under the rug, ignored, as if that would somehow make them go away. By addressing the horrors of the world, through a safe, fictional thought exercise, by examining why we feel horrified at child murder but not the murder of other creatures, we can explore a bit about ourselves, our culture, what's important to us, and the meaning of morality. Pretty heady stuff for something that's ostensibly just about sitting around and rolling dice for a few hours on the weekend. This is why I love RPGs above any other form of entertainment--it has the capacity to be thought-provoking, to be as deep or as shallow as you want it to be, because it's a truly active rather than passive activity.
I guess I'd just like to thank Geoffrey for publishing a provocative piece, something that doesn't just rehash the same tired tropes, a book that breathes a bit of good old-fashioned controversy into the old school community, of which I am increasingly feeling a part of. So thank you, sir. I will sacrifice twenty children in your honor tonight.
In all seriousness, and to sum up, playing the "bad guy" sorcerer is not something I'm interested in, but I'm sure glad the rituals were included. For one thing, they serve to establish tone. Carcosa is a world of savage, amoral brutality. Furthermore, they serve to heighten tension. I know, for example, if I had a character who was trying to save a loved from a horrific sacrificial ritual, knowing what was going to happen to such loved one would absolutely spur me on and really make the rescue mean something. Geoffrey made the point that he considered making the ritual descriptions more neutral and "safe" but that they seemed thin and ineffective that way. I couldn't agree more. Hooray for danger, and hooray for controversy!
Friday, October 17, 2008
- Preparing for the GURPS campaign I'll be starting up when I get back. I can't wait--it should be a real blast.
- Reading over Supplement V: Carcosa, which I ordered and had sent here, since I couldn't wait to get home to take a look at it. JimLOTFP nicely encapsulates both the awesomeness of the product and the ridiculousness of the "controversy" that's surrounded its release. My buddy Alex is set to run an infrequent sandbox campaign using Swords & Wizardry and Carcosa after I get back. I can't wait.
- Speaking of infrequent gaming with Alex, I started running a sort of hex crawl* Rifts campaign for him last month. We've only got one session under our belts so far, but it's shaping up to be a lot of good old fashioned science-fantasy monster bashing.
- And speaking of good gaming blogs, Sham's Grog n' Blog has been running an amazing series of glimpses into his mind-bogglingly awesome mega-dungeon. Check it out for an example of dungeoneering at its finest!
Monday, October 6, 2008
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
- First up is, of course, the vaunted Pendragon campaign. This venerable old bear ("Old big bear! He likes the honey!") of a campaign is actually due to wrap up fairly soon, probably in the next month or two. Exciting and a little scary at the same time, especially for Des, who has come to view the campaign with the same level of commitment and excitement usually reserved for long-running television series. Nevertheless, all good things must come to an end, making way for...
- One or two GURPS campaigns. We (Des and I) have a couple in the works. First up will be a grittily realistic game with Des playing herself as a 10-year-old. Can't go into too much more detail at the moment, but rest assured, things are going to go nuts once the campaign gets under way. I'm rather looking forward to it.
- After that is a GURPS Castle Falkenstein campaign (for which Des has already made a character) that will be as over-the-top cinematic as the first GURPS game was realistic.
So much for the three "primary" campaigns. In a bit of unintentional symmetry, I've got three let's call them "secondary" campaigns I'd dearly love to run (or play in, I suppose, although I'm not sure how exactly that might work). These may very well see the light of day simultaneous to my one-on-one campaigns with Des, as they're shorter in scope and could perhaps be run on an occasional, ad-hoc basis.
- Let's see...first, there's Mythic Russia. I first learned of this game about a year ago, but was repeatedly stymied in my attempts to find a cheap copy. I finally resolved to pay out the nose to get it shipped from the UK publisher--and it was worth it, I have to say. I have a long-standing love of Russian fantasy and culture. GURPS Russia. The films of Ptushko. The art of Ivan Bilibin. So imagine my joy to discover an RPG not only dedicated to such, but using the Heroquest system, the product of two of my favorite game designers, Greg Stafford and Robin D. Laws!
Well, the book so far is meeting and exceeding expectations, and I can't wait to get my teeth sunk in. I especially like the fact that rules for peripheral cultures, such as Teutonic Knights, Mongols, and Sibyriaks, are included. I'm already thinking of an idea of a Sami noble forced to leave the tribe and venture south, sort of in the vein of Princess Mononoke. There's also a sample adventure complete with pre-generated characters that looks like guaranteed fun--only problem is that it works best with 3-5 players, and I'd be hard-pressed to gather more than two players at the mo'.
- Ever since downloading the GURPS setting Tales of the Solar Patrol a couple months ago, I've been itching to do a retro-sci fi game (thus my purchase of the Dan Dare and Flash Gordon books--inspiration, you know). But I wasn't totally sold on GURPS as the system, for some reason. I think it's because I prefer GURPS for hard sf, like Transhuman Space or cyberpunky outings. For space opera, I craved something else. Then I read Dr. Rotwang!'s review of StarSIEGE-Event Horizon, and I knew I'd found my system. Light on rules, a "toolkit" approach (perfect for adapting existing settings), and it comes in a boxed set with extra copies of the player's manual? Yes please! An added bonus is that it's based off the SIEGE Engine (haw) first featured in Castles & Crusades, so it should work with my goal of doing a sci-fi/fantasy crossover using the Rifts Phase World setting (see how I snuck another potential campaign in there? So much for symmetry). I've been looking for the "right" set of space opera sci-fi rules for years, hopefully this will pan out.
- This last one requires an explanation more arcane than it needs to be, but I'll try my best to keep it succinct. Back in the day, when I was first getting into gaming, I caught Robin Hood fever. How could I not, what with the Kevin Costner vehicle in theaters and the Patrick Bergen/Uma Thurman version airing of FOX? And some cagey sales rep at my local B. Dalton's Books seemed to sense this, as he or she ordered a copy of I.C.E.'s Robin Hood: Giant Outlaw Campaign, a fine little setting sourcebook that came with two (count 'em!) different outlaw campaigns ("giant" indeed).
Now, being young and naive, and having recently purchased--you guessed it--the GURPS Basic Set, and taking the blurb on the back about being able to use the system to run any RPG adventure supplement (not realizing that you had to, you know, actually have a grasp of both the GURPS system and the system you were converting from), I snagged the Giant Outlaw Campaign, my head filled with dreams sending a group of Merry Men off into the dark depths of Sherwood.
Well, much like Daffy Duck repeatedly getting his bill bashed in by a rebounding buck-and-a-quarterstaff, my efforts to make use of my newly-purchased Giant Outlaw Campaign proved both elusive and frustrating. The dry text and "wargamey" layout (in which each subject was divided up by decimal numbers [Section 2.0, sub-section 2.0.1, etc.]) were also a big turnoff to my 13-year-old brain. The fact I lacked any semblance of anyone to game with at the time also didn't help. And when I did get a group together a year or so later, they proved singularly uninterested in the setting, Robin Hood fever having long since passed. But I held on to the damn thing, if only out of nostalgia.
But now, I think, its time has come. After I picked up Burning Wheel this year, it immediately became my "go to" game for a certain brand of grittily-realistic medieval gaming (not to mention medieval Japanese campaigns, thanks to the "Blossoms Are Falling" sourcebook--GAAH! Another campaign snuck in!). And the Robin Hood sourcebook is a perfect fit. Very little conversion will even be necessary, and lo these many years later I'm actually familiar enough with both the Rolemaster and HERO system mechanics presented therein, so what work there is to do will be a relative snap.
In the meantime, I've got the Pendragon campaign, the PbP 2e/Planescape game, and the occasional nostalgic game of Rifts with Alex to keep me busy. Ooh, and Halloween is approaching, which means it will soon be time for our annual "Call-of-Cthulhu-athon"! These are the kind of problems you want to have, eh?
But although I appreciated all this on an intellectual level (hell, I even worked for an independently-owned used book store for over a year and saw up close how tough things are for local businesses these days), it wasn't until this weekend that it finally hit me hard in the face that an era has truly passed.
I've written before about my initiation into gaming via Wargames West (now itself lost and lamented) and its wonderful catalog. Those early experiences inculcated in me a love of browsing the FLGS, of making a "game store run" even if I had nothing in particular in mind that I wanted to spend my ducats on. (I'd almost always find something. Nowadays, not so much.)
Now, I was never one of those folks who would actually hang out at the game store--I was always of the "get in, browse, get out" mode. But I would savor the half-hour or so I'd spend going over the shelves and racks, and delight in finding something that I'd never heard of, or heard of only in whispered legends. Throughout the entirety of my adolescence, about 99% of my allowance and spare cash went to my local game store (which actually wasn't that friendly...more on that shortly). Probably explains why I didn't date much in high school...
So like I said, my LGS did not have the F, as it were. I won't name names, but if you're from the L.A. area you probably know who I'm talking about. They were named after a type of soldier, and it was the last of its kind... Right, enough oblique references. So the somewhat, well, gruff and (dare I say?) stingy nature of my LGS created another favorite pastime of mine--checking out the game store scene in any town or city I happened to be traveling through in a somewhat masochistic search for friendlier stores. It became a bit of a ritual of family trips--as soon as we checked in to a hotel, I'd grab the Yellow Pages and look up the local game stores, then try and influence our vacation agenda in such a way as to position myself nearby said stores so I could "pop in." Once I started going on vacations/trips of my own, the habit persisted. And I developed some favorite destinations in the process.
One such destination was Metro Entertainment (née Comics) in Santa Barbara (a frequent "get away" for harried Angelinos, which means it was probably the non-local game store I visited most often). Not only was it jam-packed with RPGs, minis, and, yes, wargames, (and comics too, strangely enough) but the staff was both friendly and well-informed. Oh, and it was tidy and clean and well-lit. And they had sales. All of these were massive improvements over my usual LGS-that-shall-not-be-named.
The last couple times I went, I noted that Metro seemed to be, well, shrinking. Even though they occupied the same retail space, there seemed to be less stuff. This, I think, is endemic to 90% of LGSs out there--and it's what used to make LGSs so amazing, that sort of "crammed to the rafters" feeling. At any rate, I hadn't been back to Metro in several years, but Des and I just got back from a little weekend trip down to Santa Barbara, and...well, to say the place was a shadow of its former self would be doing a disservice to shadows.
Let me re-emphasize: I totally understand why game stores have retrenched, focusing on the holy trinity of D&D, Games Workshop (and its imitators), and CCGs. I really do. Change happens. It's not like we're talking about the demise of a decades- or centuries-old tradition here, either. It's a phase or something that existed for maybe 15 years, tops. And thanks to the Internet, nothing's really changed as far as access to ephemeral gaming products goes--if anything, the Internet provides even greater access and choice than even the vaunted Wargames West once did. But, much like comparing PDFs to printed books, there's a certain...loss. A sense that something great has passed by, possibly for good. In summation, ennui!
Post-script: I'd still like to give a shout out to Metro for their continued commitment to sales and discounts. They had several boxes full of Dragon and White Dwarf back issues, all marked at 99 cents (and wasn't it kind of depressing to see a bunch of issues that I used to own in the bargain bin--there's a part of me that still looks at Dragon #215 as "recent"). And, thanks to a coupon on Google, I got 15% off on a couple nifty hardback collections (Dan Dare and Flash Gordon--sweet!). So the trip was not a wash by any means, and frankly I'm happy just to see Metro still in business. Several of our other favorite destinations were long gone, sadly. Santa Barbara in general seems to be changing for the worse.
Post-script the Second: I'd also like to acknowledge that there are still game stores that carry on the grand old traditions of yore. My local example would be Gator Games down in San Bruno. It's in a tiny little storefront, but it's absolutely packed to the rafters, like all good game stores should be. And they have regular sales (I picked up several Rifts books a couple weeks ago at 50% off), and a friendly, informed staff. And, perhaps most importantly, they carry items that I've never heard of, or heard of only in whispered legends...
(Another good one is the Gamescape up in San Rafael, which is similarly packed with goodness and even has a shelf for indie games. Still haven't checked out Games of Berkeley, I've heard that's a good one too. Though they said the same thing about Endgame in Oakland and that left me thoroughly unimpressed...OK, enough rambling about Bay Area game stores.)